The doors to the dorms aren’t allowed to be closed between 7 am and 9 pm, but Sister Caroline gives a respectful tap on the frame as Penelope makes her bed. It’s been nine years since she had to do this herself but she picks it back up quick enough. Old habits die hard.
“Your new roommate has arrived, Penelope.” She looks up at the sister and drops her pillow at the sight of the new girl. “This is Alice Smith.”
Alice’s hair is pulled back in a messy ponytail and looks twice it’s normal size that way, like a can or two of hairspray may have gone into it. She’s dressed in nothing but flannel pajama pants cuffed at the bottom and an oversized t-shirt.
“Alice, this is Penelope Blossom.” Alice doesn’t meet her eyes and she needs a nudge from Sister Caroline to shake Penelope’s outstretched hand. “Penelope is from Riverdale too.” She looks between them. “You don’t know each other, do you? That wouldn’t be -”
“No,” Alice cuts the sister off and Penelope braces herself. Interrupting and speaking when not spoken to earned most kids here a punishment. Sister Caroline forces a grin.
“Speak in turn, Alice. Please. Penelope will give you privacy so you can change,” Sister Caroline says without a glance at either of them. As always, her gaze is on the floor. “Mass is in twenty minutes and you’ll report to the kitchen to help with lunch right after.” She gives both Alice and Penelope a curt nod before walking out the door. “And do not forget what we spoke about, Alice. Signs to look out for.”
“What about my stuff?” Alice calls but the door is shut with a firm click and she’s left there with her jaw on the floor.
“That is your stuff,” Penelope says softly and gestures to the stack of clothes in Alice’s arms. “You need to earn any other possessions you were allowed to bring.”
Alice looks at her and, for a horrifying moment, Penelope thinks the blonde really doesn’t remember her. Was she so unforgettable that a month away made her a total stranger? But Alice’s face takes on a range of emotions. From pity to disgust to anger and finally to sadness. She looks down at the clothes in her arms and tosses them to the ground, snaking her arms around herself.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” Alice’s voice breaks and Penelope knows she’s never seen her this vulnerable. “I’m not supposed to be here.”
A harsh laugh escapes Penelope before she can help herself, but Alice pays her no mind. “Yeah, me neither.” She picks up the clothes and places them on the bed when Alice doesn’t take them. She purses her lips. “You need to get dressed. Mass is in -”
“I’m not going to mass!” Alice snaps. “I’m not putting on this -” Alice grabs the dress and holds it up, “this smock!”
Alice lets the fabric unravel and Penelope cringes at the garment as something sinks in. It was far too large for Alice’s small frame. Maternity size.
“We need to go to mass,” Penelope says simply. “And trust me, you don’t want to ruffle any feathers here.”
Alice holds the dress against her body, her lips set in an uncharacteristic pout. “Where is here? Where are we?”
Penelope lets out a deep breath. “A home from troubled youths,” her eyes shoot down to Alice’s flat belly, “of all kinds. Welcome to The Sisters of Quiet Mercy.”
“Why am I supposed to be looking out for signs? What does that even mean?”
Penelope doesn’t turn around as she fluffs her pillow and lays a sheet over it. She’s glad Alice woke up at once today, especially after the fiasco of her refusing to get up the day before, but she doesn’t want to be late again. She can’t afford it.
“Penelope,” Alice draws out her name and sucks her teeth when Penelope still doesn’t turn around. “Fine. You want to be miserable and lonely? Be my guest.”
She hears a creak from the bed and peeks over her shoulder. Alice spreads her blanket over the mess of sheets and puts her hands on her hips, examining her work with a nod. She turns towards their shared dresser and Penelope shakes her head.
“What is that?” She points at the bed. Alice raises an eyebrow.
“My bed? What’s wrong with it?”
Penelope shakes her head and pulls the blanket off. Sure enough, the pillow is askew, the sheets a tangled mess.
“Hey!” Alice grabs for her arm and Penelope pulls it away, ignoring the pain. Alice’s grip was far from rough but it seemed everything had been leaving bruises on her since she’d come back here. “It was perfectly fine!”
“I made your bed yesterday when Sister Theresa was scolding you.” She expects Alice to look embarrassed but she seems to hardly remember. “You’re expected to make your own bed every morning before breakfast. They come around and check.”
“Okay.” Alice’s eyes roll but she takes the pillow and smooths out the pillowcase. “It looked fine though.”
“You can’t cover messy sheets with a blanket and say it’s fine!” Penelope huffs as she tucks the corners in. “You must make your own bed at home.” She bites her tongue before she brings up that she knows no Southsider has a housekeeper to do such chores for them.
“No,” Alice says flatly as she mimics the way Penelope tucks the corners. “What would I make my bed for? It’s just going to get messy again anyway.”
“If someone goes in your room and sees a unmade bed -”
“The only people I invite in my bedroom are ones who are going to help me mess up the bed again.”
She knows Alice expects her to blush, but she doesn’t. Instead Penelope folds the blanket neatly over the pillow, thinking over her next words carefully. “Your parents don’t mind if your bed isn’t made? Or if you have guests in your room?”
“My dad doesn’t give a shit what I do, as long as I don’t get in trouble.” Alice snorts at her own words and gestures to her abdomen with a shrug. “Oops.”
The gesture doesn’t have quite the power Alice hopes since her stomach is still flat as can be, but Penelope gets the idea. They finish the bed together, Alice following Penelope’s steps, and just as she turns to finish her own bed, she braves the question.
“How far along are you?”
She feels Alice's eyes burning a hole through her but she stays focused on her own bed. It’s a long moment before Alice answers. “Four months. Seventeen or eighteen weeks. Something like that.”
Penelope can’t help but turn and look as Alice leaves the room without another word. She’d be due in mid March.
“Tayna told me you’re a lesbian.”
The word sounds so foreign in this place, Penelope’s head shoots up from her book and she looks at Alice with horror. The girl snuck up on her and there’s no one else in the garden - at least no one else in hearing range - but Penelope grabs Alice’s arm with such fervor that the girl looks scared.
“Do not use words like that here,” Penelope hisses. Alice looks down at Penelope’s hand and Penelope snatches it back before she takes it as one of those telltale signs the sisters told her to look out for. She knows her grasp didn’t hurt Alice, but the blonde’s mouth stays ajar for a second before closing with a snap.
“Words like what? Like,” Alice glances around and mouths the word again. Penelope nods curtly. “I swear you guys are so afraid of these nuns. What for? What do you possibly think they’ll do to you?”
Penelope stands up from the bench and tucks her book under her arm. In a few weeks it will be too cold to sit in the garden and enjoy the sun and she’s annoyed Alice cuts her time short today.
“You don’t want to get in trouble here, Alice,” she says earnestly. “Nor do I. It’s best to keep your head down and not ask questions.” She takes off back towards the building and Alice follows at her heels.
“Tayna’s a bitch,” Alice mutters under her breath. “You know which one she is, right? The cow with short back hair? Waddles everywhere?”
Tayna was due any day now, Penelope knew, but she keeps her mouth shut and nods.
“She says they always room us with the,” she drops her voice and hisses the word, “lesbians. She said her roommate is one. I think her name is Natasha? Anyway, I told her that was stupid, I know my roommate isn’t one and she asks if I wasn’t rooming with you and what made her think I knew anything about you, I’ve hardly been here a week.” Alice glances at Penelope but she keeps her gaze ahead, fixed on the door. “Anyway, I told Tayna to relax because no girl would want her fat ass in the first place, even if she wasn’t about to pop a kid out and ruin her vag forever. I - ouch!”
They both stop walking as Penelope stops and digs her nails into Alice’s arm. She’d grown weak in the time since she’d been here, hadn’t eaten much, but she had started growing her nails long. One thing her mother would have approved of.
“You’re not in some dive on the Southside, Alice,” Penelope hisses. “Look around. We’re both here for a reason and that reason is we made mistakes. We’re here to atone. To change. Or in your case,” she takes her nails out of Alice, “to wait out your mistake. You’re pregnant and they’ll let you get away with a lot more because of that. They don’t want to hurt someone with child. But that can only protect you for so long. Believe me.”
They walk the stone path around the build instead of entering. Their matching black shoes make click-clack noises in perfect unison and covers their talking from the other kids they pass by.
“I was defending you.” Alice’s voice is devoid of emotion but her feet hit the ground just too hard. “I don’t want some knocked up hag talking about what she doesn’t know.”
“Well if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black!”
“I’m trying to be nice.” Her voice is in the same even tone that’s so odd coming from the passionate girl next to her. “I know you’re not gay.”
“You don’t know anything!” Penelope hisses. She walks a little faster but Alice catches up in an instant. She wishes Alice was in the waddling stage so she could outrun her.
“You’ve been wanting to fuck my boyfriend for years.” Alice’s voice is calm but it’s lost the level tone she had earlier, her emotion creeping through. “So you’re obviously not into girls. Please, don’t think I’m jealous or I care because we both know stick figure cheerleaders aren’t Hal’s type.” She examines her nails as Penelope glares at her. “You don’t have enough meat on your bones for him. And you can’t fake those stupid doe eyes you give you him all the time either. See?” Alice smirks, her face full of spite. “I knew you weren’t gay. So tell me why you’re really here.”
With one quick movement, Penelope shoves Alice off the path and into the grass. She had skipped the porridge they were served for breakfast and her push is so weak that Alice only falls because she’s taken by surprise.
“Oh no, Alice!” a girl’s voice calls out and it’s the famous Tanya, slowly making her way over flanked by two other girls. One with a belly as flat as Alice’s and another rounded off. “Help her up, girls. And someone call Sister Theresa, she’ll want to know Alice was attacked -”
“Oh fuck off, you cow,” Alice hisses as she shoves the flat bellied girl away from her and gets up herself. “Leave us alone or I’ll knock you flat on your back like a turtle.” She pulls herself up and grabs Penelope’s arm to drag her away. “Say one goddamn word to anyone and I won’t wait until that baby pops out to beat your ass.”
Penelope’s arm is almost dislocated as Alice drags her back inside the stone building. She lets go of her arm as they reach the staircase and hurries up the stairs two at a time, leaving Penelope in her dust.
“They room us together because they - well.” Penelope swallows hard as Alice meets her eyes over a school book. “They think we’re less likely to relapse if we share a room with a pregnant girl.”
“Relapse?” Alice’s nose scrunchies up in confusion. “You were doing drugs? Then why aren’t you off with the junkie kids?”
“Not - not that kind of relapse.” Her tongue feels dry. “Like that we’ll - we’ll fall back on old ways.”
“Old ways?” Alice’s face is still puzzled and the term ‘pregnancy brain’ pops into Penelope’s head.
“Sapphic ways,” Penelope blurts out as best she can when she feels like she has a mouthful of peanut butter. “Like girls who - who like -” Alice’s lips twist into a smile.
“Does your family really think you’re gay or something?” Alice speaks softly, like she’s explaining something to a child. It’s the first time Penelope’s ever gotten a motherly vibe from her. “You can’t tell me you like girls when -”
“Everything in life isn’t black and white, Alice Smith!” The door is open and she glances before continuing. “Nothing is that simple.”
Alice looks at her for a long time, her expression blank but brow slowly furrowing in thought. Just when Penelope is ready to head to the common room to get away, Alice shrugs.
“Yeah, Pen. No shit.”
It’s the first time in the nine years they’ve known each other that Alice has called her that, but something about it feels natural.
“You don’t eat.” Alice’s voice is stern and when Penelope looks up, a hand is placed at her hip, just over the bump growing under her dress. “At meals. All you do is move your food around.”
Penelope gapes and finally gets out. “I eat.”
“You don’t!” Alice snaps. She reaches into the pocket of her dress and pulls out a cloth napkin from the dining hall. Penelope wants to tell her the trouble she could be in for stealing. “I serve your food and I bus your plate. You rarely take more than a bite of anything.” She hands the napkin to her. “Take it.”
Penelope cringes as she opens it, thinking for a moment it may be the dry porkchop she cut up at dinner. But it’s not. It’s two chocolate chip cookies, each the size of her palm, still warm from being inside Alice’s pocket.
“We get dessert,” Alice says softly. “I think only we do. Guess they figure they need to keep us well fed since we’re,” she makes air quotes, “with child.”
Penelope swallows hard and folds the napkin, shoving it towards Alice. “I can’t. I don’t want it.”
“Eat them.” Alice takes Penelope’s other hand and places it over the napkin. Her touch is soft despite her hands being wrinkled from washing dinner plates. “You need them more than me. Plus you always had a sweet tooth.”
There’s an emptiness that’s been in Penelope’s stomach since she’s arrived. Something aching and painful that she knows food won’t quite quench. But maybe it’ll help. She unfolds the napkin and raises one of the cookies to her mouth, biting into it slowly.
It’s soft, warm. It’s nowhere as sweet as a store bought cookie and nowhere as tasty as one of Mrs. Cooper’s, but it’s delicious. It reminds her of her birthday when she was a child in this same building. Birthdays and holidays were normally the only times they got anything with sugar in it. Anytime they got a treat. It brings stinging tears to her eyes.
“Is it that bad?” Alice asks with some concern. “Sister Eunice makes them, not us.”
“No, no,” Penelope chokes as she finally swallows the first bite. “It’s wonderful.” A growl escapes her stomach that’s so loud she knows Alice can hear it. She also knows if she eats both cookies she’ll be sick to her stomach. Even if they’re not the best, they’re far richer than the food normally served here.
“Take your time.” Alice wraps up the other cookie and tucks it into the top drawer of their dresser. “It’s here when you want the other one.” Her hair is up in a ponytail and it swings around when she moves her head. “Just keep it with my stuff. I’ll get in less trouble for it.”
There’s a Sunday where Alice is gone by the time she wakes up. She doesn’t see her at breakfast or at mass and when she goes back to their room after lunch, there’s a small bundle on Penelope’s bedside table.
Wrapped in wax paper is a single cupcake. There’s no frosting, but it’s tinted pink. When she takes a sniff the faint smell of strawberry fills her nose.
Alice is in the doorway with a grin.
“You have no idea how much convincing it took Sister Eunice to let me bake that.” Alice takes a seat on Penelope’s bed and leans back with her hands propping her up. The bump is most noticeable that way. “Had to listen to her talk about what a sin Halloween is all week and then I realized if it’s almost Halloween it must be your birthday soon and -”
Penelope’s head darts up. “You remembered my birthday?”
Alice rolls her eyes but Penelope notices a slight blush on her cheeks. “The day after Halloween, kind of hard to forget.” She purses her lips and looks to her stomach. “I was going to go as Catwoman. Can you believe that?” She lets out a laugh and looks back to Penelope. “You did remember it was your birthday today, didn’t you?”
“Of course.” She means for there to be an edge to her voice, but there isn't. She wonders if Clifford will call from Dartmouth to wish her happy birthday. Not here, but at Thornhill. Surely they wouldn’t let him know where she was, what she had done. “I just didn’t think it was very important.”
“You only turn 18 once.” She nudges her. “Well, eat it.”
“How did you let Sister Eunice talk you into baking?” She lifts the cupcake to her mouth slowly and sinks her teeth in. Lunch was beef goulash with the same texture as a soggy cardboard box so her stomach growls even as the cupcake goes down.
“Besides get lectured on sin and promise to give up my first born child? Nothing much.” She shrugs. “Was planning on doing that anyway.”
Penelope almost chokes on the cake in her mouth and Alice whacks her back until she can swallow. “Don’t do that,” she hisses at Alice. “Ever again.”
“Sorry. I'll wait for you to swallow next time so you can appreciate my joke.”
“Don’t joke about things like that, Alice!” She clicks her teeth. “Giving up your first born child! It’s not funny!"
"Oh you're right!" Alice raises her voice more than enough to alert anyone in the neighboring rooms. "It's not funny because it's literally what I'm doing!"
"Alice!" Penelope's head snaps to the door. "Keep your voice down!"
"Why should I?" she snaps. "This place is a fucking nightmare. I didn’t think I had to pretend around you that it isn’t!"
“You don’t, but,” Penelope bites the inside of her cheek, “when you say things like that - jokes like that - they’re not -”
"Alice!" A voice from the door makes both their heads turn. "Penelope! What is going on here?"
Sister Theresa glares at them, but it's nothing compared to the look Alice shoots her.
"Just teaching Penelope the facts of life!" Alice folds her arms over her chest. "One little slip up and you get landed here."
"Off that bed, Alice," Sister Theresa says shortly. "It's Penelope's."
Alice looks defiant. "And if I don't?"
Sister Theresa’s nostrils flare. “Then I will have no choice but to get the Monsignor in here to intervene.”
“Awesome.” Alice folds her arms over her chest. “Get him in here.”
They stare at each other for a few seconds before Sister Theresa spins on her heel, saying nothing more than, “Get to your afternoon duties before he gets here, Penelope.”
Penelope slips out of the room with Alice still on her bed. She’s not there when she comes back from cleaning duty, nor when she wakes up in the morning.
She’s there at breakfast though, serving sloppy portions of porridge to the other kids, but she hardly gives her a second glance.
Things are icy in their room after that.
Alice gets a letter. The envelope is crisp and the lettering neat and it's left open on her pillow one afternoon. Penelope hadn’t received a thing since arriving, but she supposes its standard that the sisters read and inspect everything before handing it over.
The left corner is stamped with THE COOPERS and their Elm Street address and the postage is a cornucopia surrounded by leaves.
She glances at the letter every few seconds, unable to focus on the school work in front of her. There was plenty of time before Alice would be back from kitchen duty. Plenty of time to place it neatly back in the envelope and pretend she never saw it. In fact, wasn’t there a good chance Alice would assume Penelope read it anyway? It wouldn’t be out of character for Alice to think Penelope snooped through her stuff.
Only - only perhaps it would be. Alice was like a different person here, someone Penelope would hardly associate with the crass gang member who sold marijuana at parties out of her leather jacket. The girl who would spit on you rather than help you up if you fell. The girl who -
But no. That girl was still there. Still there buried underneath the oversized dress and the bare face and the tummy just starting to pop out. After over a week of coldness, she’d finally exchanged words with her yesterday.
When Alice does show up, Penelope reads her body language without even looking at her. The way she pretends not to look at her. The way she runs her eyes around the room, trying to sense what’s out of place. (She never would have taken Alice Smith for a neat freak but she has been wrong before.) She takes the one, two, three short steps until she’s in front of her own bed. It creaks under her weight and the rustle of paper and silent reading fill the room.
Alice doesn’t look up when she’s done with the letter and Penelope realizes she’s staring dead at her. Too late to turn away, she gets out a single pathetic word.
Alice folds the letter neatly. “Well what?”
“Nevermind,” Penelope says as her eyes run over the envelope. “You don’t need to tell me.”
There’s a long pause before Alice says, “It’s Mrs. Cooper. She’s coming to see me this weekend.”
A lump gathers in Penelope’s throat. “Oh. Why?”
Alice cocks her head, as if figuring out if Penelope is joking or not. “The Coopers are paying for me to stay here.” She scoffs. “You don’t think my dad could afford this place, do you? Normally when a Southside girl gets pregnant, we just deal with it. We don’t ship our kids off to nunneries to hide their shame.”
“Oh.” It didn’t occur to her that the Coopers were footing Alice’s bill. That Alice could never afford this place on her own, as crappy as it was.
“Do you want to see her?” Alice asks. “I mean, she’s always liked you. More than she ever liked me for sure. She said to call if there’s something special I want. Do you like her snickerdoodles? I’d kill for one of them right now.”
“I - please don’t.” She snaps closed the book she was reading. “You haven’t been talking to her, have you?”
Alice shrugs. “She’s called the office and asked to talk to me once or twice. She came to visit the first two weeks I was here but you were in your,” Alice thinks of the right word, “therapy.”
“You didn't mention me, did you?” Alice opens her mouth and closes it. “Alice, did you -”
“No!” She looks to the ceiling. “I almost did. I guess they told her they roomed me with someone and she asked if we were getting along and you know what that means. If we weren’t she’d think it was my fault of course.” She picks at her quilt to avoid Penelope’s gaze. “At first I didn’t want to say it was you in case we did get into it and they called her or something. She’d be so disappointed if she found out we weren’t getting along. And by the next time she came, I guess I just kind of realized maybe you wouldn’t want people to know. That’s why you didn’t tell anyone you were coming here in the first place.”
Penelope shakes her head. “I didn’t even know I was coming here. I woke up one morning to my mother telling me I had guests and they carted me off. I didn’t have time to tell anyone if I wanted to. I doubt they even told Clifford where they sent me.”
Alice meets her gaze. “Jesus Christ.”
“Alice!” Penelope hisses and points to the crucifix above her head. Alice smirks.
“Sorry,” she mutters although she doesn’t look it at all. “I didn’t realize they didn’t tell you.”
“What did you think?” She gestures around the bare room. “That I came back here willingly?”
Alice tilts her head, her expression serious. “What do you mean came back here?”
Penelope snaps her book shut. “Please don’t tell Mrs. Cooper I’m here, Alice.”
For all her faults, Alice doesn’t mention the slip up again. Penelope stays in the common room during Alice’s visit with Mrs. Cooper and Alice offers up nothing but a snickerdoodle when Penelope returns.
Late that night, as they both lie in their beds, Penelope whispers, “What were they saying about me at school?” Both girls shuffle until they face each other. “When I stopped going?”
Penelope can just make out Alice’s face in the dim light. “Well certainly not that you were here.”
“But what? People must have talked.” She sighs. “People always talk.”
“Hal called your house a bunch of times, even went there once. Your mother was apparently very rude and told him you were at a boarding school. Or was it finishing school? Debutante classes?” Penelope can’t tell if it’s a joke or not but Alice quickly continues. “Hermione went on and on about how unfair it was you transferred schools right in the middle of football season.” She puts on a voice that’s supposed to be mocking of Hermione but it’s a poor imitation. “‘And after I made her assistant cheer coach and everything!’ She was pissed but she surprisingly didn’t have a better story. And beyond that I heard some random stuff here and there. That you had enough credits to graduate early and were taking classes at Highsmith. That you were getting homeschooled. That you joined the circus.” Penelope smiles at Alice’s weak joke. It felt nice to be on friendly terms with her again. “I doubt they’ll say anything that nice about me.”
Penelope props herself up on her elbows to get a better look at Alice. “What makes you say that?”
“Please,” she scoffs. “If people don’t realize I ran off to have a baby in shame they probably think I’m in jail or something.”
“Oh, Alice. No one -”
“Everyone would think something like that, Pen.” Alice copies her stance. “If I go back to school in a few months? All anyone has to do is some simple math. Girl disappears for five months after a public fight with her boyfriend, comes back with wider hips, belly fat, and tits twice their old size.” She lays flat on her back and stares up at the ceiling. “And if I don’t go back - just get my GED or something - then people will just assume I went to jail. It’s a double edged sword.”
Silence creeps into the room so that Penelope can hear the owls and other nightlife from the closed window. She wonders if they were talking too loud before risking it again anyway.
“What do you want to do, Alice?”
Alice turns her head. “Mrs. Cooper says to keep my chin up and finish at Riverdale High but under no circumstance am I to tell anyone what happened or where I went.”
Penelope purses her lips. “Are you going to?”
That deafening silence fills the room again and after a few minutes, Penelope wonders if Alice dozed off. Just when she starts to close her own eyes, Alice answers, her voice full of tears.
“I have no fucking idea.”
The November air is cold, but everything at the Sisters is cold anyway. At least outside they’re allowed to wear their winter coats. (Alice’s bottom button doesn’t quite fasten anymore over her expanding belly but neither of them mention it.) Unlike their uniforms of blue and red, their hats and scarfs and mittens are a mishmash of different colors and patterns.
“Some of the older kids knit them during the winter months,” Penelope explains as they walk along the dying garden. “The junkies, I think normally.” She doesn’t like the word but she can’t think of a better one. “I remember Sister Patricia saying it’s a good way for them to keep their hands busy. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings after all. Oh, and some of the pregnant girls knit too, because I suppose knitting is just what women used to do when they were pregnant. And not to mention keeping your hands working keep them warm when it’s cold - what?”
Alice shakes her head but the smile is still on her face. “Nothing, nothing.”
Penelope pouts and grabs her arm. “Tell me!”
Her loose blonde hair falls around her shoulders as she shrugs. “I just like it when you get like this. It’s nice.”
“Like what?” Penelope asks as her heart speeds up in her chest.
“Talkative and all. It’s cute. You always came off as so quiet and serious at school.” Alice feeds her a genuine smile this time. One she never would have thought her capable of a few months ago. “But the more I get to know you, I don’t know. We could have actually been friends this whole time.”
Penelope gapes and blurts out, “I was not the one being rude to you.”
Alice laughs. “I’m not saying it wasn’t my fault.” She shrugs. “It’s just good to have this now.”
Penelope digs her hands deeper into her pockets. “Me too. I mean,” she knows she’d be blushing if the cold air wasn’t chilling her skin, “I could have tried harder with you. Been nicer.”
Alice looks down as she walks. Penelope can never tell if she’s looking at her stomach or just where they’re walking.
“Can I ask you a stupid question?” Alice seems almost uncomfortable asking, as if she’s not used to ever asking if she can do something or not and, to whatever extent, Penelope supposes that’s true. Alice was more the type to blurt out whatever she was thinking, filter be damned.
“Of course,” Penelope assures, still glancing sideways at her. Alice keeps her gaze down.
“Pen, Penelope. Did you grow up here?”
Alice looks up with the final word, just as Penelope’s brow is furrowing. “What do you mean by here?”
“Here here.” Alice gestures around. “Like here at the Sisters. That building right there. I know the Blossoms adopted you but is - Penelope, is this the place where you came from?”
It’s her turn to look down as she thinks out her answer. “I don’t know why I assumed it was common knowledge. I mean, how many orphanages are there even?”
Alice swallows hard and opens her mouth to say something but Penelope keeps going.
“I didn’t come from here in the sense that I was born here. I don’t know anything about my birth parents but I was told my mother was not one of the young, unwed mothers like yourself. I was simply handed over to the sisters as an infant. I’m not even sure how old I was. A newborn, I assume, although no one ever bothered to give me details when I asked.” She waves her finger. “And before you even ask, no, I do not know who my parents were. I don’t know the circumstances in which they gave me up or their names or ages or if they were even locals.”
Alice looks at her sideways. “Wouldn’t all that stuff be in your file?”
The thought had crossed her mind a few times before as a kid. She’d even risked asking Rose once if they took her file when they adopted her and she never got a straight answer.
“That stuff from when I was a kid is long gone, Alice.” She smiles sadly. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I helped Sister Eunice make pies all day for Thanksgiving.” Alice examines her hands before she slides them through the arms of her nightgown. “The butter under my nails is about as close to lotion as I’ll ever get around here.”
“The only lotion I ever had before Thornhill was the calamine they covered me in the week we all got chickenpox.” Penelope pulls her braid loose. “There are a lot of luxuries I never even knew about until I got out of here.”
“I guess you’re going to be really disappointed when there’s no ice cream to go with the apple pie then.” Alice sighs. “God - I mean, gosh - I don’t care how cold I am, you have no idea what I’d do for a huge fucking bowl of ice cream right now.”
Penelope rolled her eyes. She could teach Alice not to use the Lord’s name in vain while sleeping under a crucifix, but not to keep her potty mouth away from it apparently.
“You know the first time I ever had ice cream was the day I got adopted,” Penelope says as Alice wraps a blanket around her shoulders. “You probably took ice cream for granted your whole life. Took a lot of things for granted. I can’t remember the first time I had a lot of things, but I still remember ice cream. It was the first thing the Blossoms ever fed me.”
Alice gives her a curious look, her head tilted. “What? They didn’t make you take a shot of maple syrup before they brought you home?”
In another time and place, it would have stung. Now she just laughs softly as she pulls the threadbare blanket around herself. It was almost December and she’d never forget how cold the winters were here .
“No,” she continues. “They brought me to Pops. Clifford was there waiting for us. They hadn’t brought him or Claudius here to meet me beforehand. I guess that should have been a red flag at the time, but I was only eight. I -”
“A red flag?” Alice sits upright. “What do you mean?” She misses the pained look that takes over Penelope’s face as she gathers her blanket and crosses the small room to Penelope’s bed. She sits on the edge.
Penelope doesn’t meet her eyes. Instead she picks at a loose thread in her blanket as Alice’s warm body settles in next to her. “There was a bowl of ice cream on the table. I - I thought it was a sundae at the time, but it was only ice cream.” She closes her eyes, as if remembering it. “It was strange because I never imagined good food would ever be cold. You think hot is fresh and good. Cold was something old. Like how your porridge grows cold because you got to breakfast late. Nothing good was ever cold.”
Alice radiated heat to her. She wasn’t cold anymore.
Alice opens the door of the nursery and lets Penelope roll the laundry cart in.
“Take my cardigan too.” Alice unbuttons it. “I got spit up all over it.” She points to the baby in the corner - a tiny girl not even a month old. “She’s a little nightmare. Three guesses who she popped out of.”
“Tayna?” Penelope asks as she inches over to the crib and peers over the side. The baby is fussing and Alice clicks her tongue and picks her up.
“Yup.” She rocks her gently but it does little to soothe. “I’m sorry, baby, I didn’t mean to call you a nightmare.” She sighs and turns her head to get the loose strands of hair out of her face. “You can’t help that you came out of that bitch.”
“Alice!” Penelope hisses. “She’s a baby, you can’t -”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” Alice looks about ready to pass out. “I just feel bad for her is all. She’s a newborn. She needs more attention, right? Like shouldn’t she be in someone’s arms all day? I got three more kids under two to babysit. I don’t have time to just hold her all day.”
Penelope’s hand hovers towards the baby, but she pulls it back before she touches her. “Does she have a name?”
“Sophia” Alice turns the baby to face her as her crying finally stops. “She doesn’t look like a Sophia, does she? I’m just surprised they let Tayna name her before she left.”
“Well where else would her name come from?” Penelope asks as she pours the basket of dirty nappies and onesies into her rolling hamper.
“Figured the sisters named them or something.” Alice shrugs, still staring at the baby. “I just didn’t realize I’d have to name the baby is all.”
“Oh.” Penelope turns to Alice but her eyes are still fixated on the child in her arms. “I can help if -”
“I have a name already.” She looks a little embarrassed and keeps her head down. “Charles for a boy and Elizabeth for a girl. Only,” she examines the child in her arms carefully, “I guess I’ll never be able to use those names for my own kids after this, will I? Because this baby won’t really be mine. I thought he’d go right off to some infertile couple, someone with enough money to afford to come to a place and pick out their kid but, well,” she finally meets Penelope’s eyes. “I’ve been here for almost two months and I haven’t seen a single person come in to adopt a kid. Not to even browse our little selection. Kids don’t get adopted here very often, do they, Pen?”
Penelope’s knuckles are white from gripping the handle of her cart. “Alice, please, don’t think that way. Kids get adopted from here all the time.”
“You don’t have to lie to make me feel better.” Her voice isn’t snappy or harsh but rather just sad. “I didn’t think it’d be so bad, you know? I know giving up your baby is supposed to be some horrible thing, but if - maybe if the baby was going to a better family it wouldn't be so awful. Surely anyone who went out of their way to adopt a child must really want one, right? Could give them a better life than some single mom on the Southside of Riverdale could.” There’s no tears in her eyes. She just smiles at Penelope sadly. “I guess you were one of the lucky ones who got out, huh?”
Alice is wrong. So wrong. But she doesn’t have the heart to get into it today.
“Trust me,” she leaves her with as she pushes open the door, “I wasn’t lucky.”
Alice doesn’t ask to climb into bed with her anymore. They wait for lights out every night. Wait for the sound of Sister Caroline’s steps to fade down the stone hallway. A few times Alice fluffs her pillow under the flat sheet to make it look like the bed is still occupied, but she gives up the facade when she realizes they never come checking after dark without a reason. Penelope tries her best to not give them a reason.
“I’ll get in trouble, not you,” Alice insists, dragging her quilt to Penelope’s bed. As if they would ever use corporal punishment on someone with child. “Relax.”
It becomes their routine, night in and night out. Both their heads on Penelope’s pillow, whispering until neither of them can keep their eyes open. Alice’s growing belly presses against hers in a strange comfort. This baby between them - this baby Alice and Hal so thoughtlessly made - giving off something both warm and alien.
“Can I touch it?” she asks one night, her hand already hovering over the bump. Alice raises her brow before her eye catch Penelope’s movement. She nods and moves so she’s laying on her back.
The bump is firmer than Penelope expects. Larger than it looks under Alice’s cotton nightgown. She runs her hand back and forth slowly and she’s about to ask Alice if she ever feels the baby move when a sob escapes Alice and she claps a hand over her mouth.
“I - what did I do? Alice?” Penelope takes her hands off the girl’s stomach as Alice shakes her head furiously, one hand still stifling her sobs. Penelope readjusts and pulls Alice into her lap.
“He didn’t want it,” Alice whispers several minutes later.
“Hmm?” Penelope brushes Alice’s loose hair back with her fingers. “Who -”
“Hal.” And Penelope’s blood runs cold. It’s the first time Alice has muttered the name in ages and, she realizes with a pang of guilt, the first time Penelope has thought of him in weeks. Alice’s eyes pop open. “Hal didn’t want our baby.”
“Oh, Alice.” Penelope bites her tongue, holding back her reflex to defend her friend back home. “What happened?”
“Homecoming,” is all she gets out before the tears come again. She wipes her eyes furiously and continues. “I told him - told him right before homecoming. I don’t know why I thought things would be any different. What 17-year-old wants to be a father?” She bites her lip. “None of them. I don’t know - don’t know why but I wanted to think - think Hal’d be different.” She covers both her hands with her face. “That’d he say fuck it, let’s have the baby. And we’d run away or something. Or get a place. Or - or maybe there was a one in a million chance his parents would be happy and let us get married and we’d - we’d get to -” Alice shakes her head slowly. She lets her hands fall from her eyes. “But they didn’t. They sent me here. Sent me here with their son so terrified he could hardly say goodbye to me. Hal’s so stupid. Me. I’m so stupid.”
Alice’s lips fall back in that pout that’s so unlike the face Penelope has watched for the past nine years. Their eyes meet and Penelope swallows the lump in her throat.
“You are not stupid, Alice,” she says softly. Her hand falls back and pushes Alice’s hair off her forehead. “Not at all. I, well, I admit I don’t know what I would think Hal would do in this situation, but you’re not stupid for wanting him to be there with you.”
“I made it so much worse,” Alice croaks. “I told my dad right after homecoming. I told my dad everything and he practically dragged me to the Coopers by my hair. We,” she breathes out heavy, “we could’ve controlled this.”
Penelope runs one of Alice’s curls between her fingers. “Hal was never going to run away with you. You always knew that.” Her words aren’t meant to sting but Alice cringes.
“I know.” Alice’s voice is sad, low. “But a girl can dream, right?”
“Alice?” Penelope looks down at the girl in her lap. “Fuck it. We could run away.”
The words are so unexpected, Alice covers her mouth to hold in a teary laugh. “Yeah?”
“Yes.” Penelope looks towards their small window, the nearly full moon just visible through the trees. “We can go to Greendale. I know it well enough.”
Alice smiles, playing along. “And do tell, what do two teenagers do for a living in Greendale?”
“Speak for yourself.” Penelope hikes up her nose. “I am eighteen. Legally an adult.”
“Oh, sorry.” Alice rolls her eyes. “Well how do we get by?”
“We stop by Thornhill and raid the conservatory for herbs first. Then we open a little shop in Greendale. An apothecary of sorts.”
Alice lets out a giggle. “I always knew you were a witch.”
“Shush. I do the work and you deal with the customers. You’re better face to face with people.”
“Him?” Penelope draws her eyes away from the window and looks down at Alice. Her hands are resting on her belly again. “Oh. Well he stays in the front of the store with you. In one of those little walker things. He brings in business.”
“He calls me Auntie,” Penelope continues as Alice snakes her hands around her waist, getting comfortable. “We live in a little flat above the shop. It’s all very quaint.”
Alice’s voice is lined with sleep when she responds. “Sounds romantic.”
Penelope scooches down in bed, her arms not leaving the girl falling asleep in her bed. “It is.”
It’s so cold at night, sleeping together seems almost a necessity. That’s what Penelope tells herself at least. That surely they’d freeze through the night if they didn’t share their blankets and body heat.
She’s supposed to be here to get better. To stop having those impure thoughts and desires. And she knows she can do it because she has those same desires when she thinks about boys too. But it’s a feeling that’s hard to shake when Alice snakes her arms around her and rests her head on her chest. Their issued shampoo is meant to clean and clean only, but there’s still a natural sweet scent that comes off Alice. She admits one day she’s risked taking a few drops of the precious vanilla extract in the kitchen and sprinkled it in her hair.
“I don’t remember my mom well, she died when I was so young.” Alice plays with a strand of her own hair and gives it a sniff. “But I have some vague memories of her doing that. Using vanilla extract because it still cost less than the nice perfume at Lacy’s.”
Penelope thinks of Rose’s vanity, covered with at least ten bottles of top of the line scents. And then she thinks of how perfume wasn’t even a thing that occurred to her until she got adopted.
“That’s a nice story,” Penelope says. Alice holds a strand of hair out to Penelope and waves it in front of her nose until she sniffs. An aching fills her core when she does and she can’t help but think her parents have wasted money sending her here. She’s never going to shake this feeling.
“I’m going to be too big for this soon.” Alice is twenty-seven weeks along, give or take, and every day she swears she gains another five pounds. Penelope’s bed gives a creak when she sits. “We’ll have to sleep alone soon.”
“Nonsense.” Penelope scoots over as far as she can in the twin bed to give Alice room. “We’ll freeze. We’ll just push our beds together.”
Alice raises a brow. “How will we ever explain that?”
“No better than we’ll explain this.” She gestures between them. “We just won’t give them a reason to check up on us.”
Alice lays on her back now and Penelope feels the kick of the baby inside. “Does it hurt?”
“Not exactly.” Alice rubs a spot above Penelope’s hand. “It’s just a strange feeling. Hard to explain. Even stranger is when I first started feeling him move. There was like this weird fluttering. Like when you’re nervous and have butterflies in your stomach, only ten times more.”
“I hate that sensation,” Penelope blurts out even though Alice is smiling at the thought. She chuckles.
“Well it’s okay. I’m sure you have a long time before you’re going to have kids.”
Penelope shakes her head. Shakes it before she can help herself. “It’s a lot closer than you think.”
“You’re not pregnant with the second coming, are you?” She looks to the crucifix on the wall. “It is almost Christmas. Has there been another immaculate conception?”
She closes her eyes. “I’m supposed to get married next year. Sometime after graduation.”
“What?” Alice’s voice is too loud for the night and the single word echoes off their walls. “Marry who? Why?”
“My parents set it up.” She finds Alice’s hand in the dark and squeezes but keeps her eyes closed. “Before they even came here to pick me out of a litter of redheads.”
“What are you talking about?” Penelope finally opens her eyes when Alice’s hand touches her cheek. “They had an arranged marriage for you before you were even adopted?” She scoffs. “I mean who would ever agree to that? What family?”
“I mean what other family would agree to marry their son off to some random eight-year-old? That’s ludacris.”
She squeezes Alice’s hand tighter. “My family, Alice. They only needed a little redheaded girl to marry off to their little redheaded boy. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m,” her voice cracks, “if I’m as pregnant as you by this time next year.”
Penelope cries. Alice cries. The baby kicks between them as they hug, his distress as strong as theirs. In a few months, the baby will have no family, Alice will have no baby, and Penelope will be trying to make the next Blossom heir.
Christmas at the Sisters may not be the same festivities as back home, but it’s still one of the more exciting days.
Penelope asks special to spend Christmas morning with the small kids, most of them orphans here since birth just as she had been. The tree in the common room is as sparse as the few donated toys underneath it, but she makes a big deal with each one to get the kids excited. She doesn’t have that natural charm with kids some others do, but she tries her hardest.
She ushers them down to breakfast and heads back up to collect Alice who was still asleep when she crawled out of bed earlier.
She takes pause a few feet from their door when she hears a deep voice coming from her room. The boys dorms were on the other side of the building, far from the girls. The only man who occasionally made a visit this way was the monsignor, and even that was few and far between.
The door is half closed and she puts her ear up to listen. Her blood runs cold when she places the voice.
“You hate me,” Hal’s voice travels out. Low and sounding like tears were behind the next word. “And I don’t blame you, Alice. I hate me too.”
“Why are you here?” Alice doesn’t sound mad or upset. She uses that detached voice again, like she’s letting Hal show all his cards first. “Your parents can’t be okay with you coming here.”
“They don’t know where I am. I - well my sister and me - looked through my mom’s stuff and found a check made out to this place. We left this morning before they woke up. Gertrude’s outside in the station wagon.”
“Better keep her out there. They’re not crazy about lesbians here.”
“Alice, please -”
“What, Hal? Why are you here?”
“I wanted to see you.”
“Because I screwed up, Alice. I - I was scared. Horrified. And I panicked. I’m not trying to excuse what I did. I don’t expect you to forgive me or ever talk to me again after this I just - I needed to see you.”
There’s a long pause. Penelope can practically see Alice staring him down, giving him that blank look and waiting for him to keep talking, to make the next move.
“Are you okay? Is everything - okay?”
“Well, I’m here.”
“And the baby?”
There’s another pause, shorter this time, before Alice asks, “Do you want to feel it?”
Penelope takes off down the hall, back towards the cafeteria. She has no right to be jealous, to care, but she does. The baby was the special thing between them, even if Hal and her were the ones who made it.
Alice comes down fifteen minutes later and takes a seat next to her. She doesn’t offer her an explanation or mention Hal. She just sits closer than they normally do in public and says, “Merry Christmas, Penelope,” as she digs into her eggs.
The monsignor does show up a few days later with a sister at either of his sides. He gives Alice nothing more than a look before she reaches into her pillowcase and pulls out a small velvet box.
“Mrs. Cooper will be happy to know we retrieved this.” And he leaves without another word.
She gives Alice a questioning look and gets a shrug in return.
“Hal sent me a gift for Christmas, but I wasn’t sure if I should take it. It wasn’t even his to give. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone asked for it.”
“Hal came to see you?”
Alice doesn’t meet her eyes, but she shrugs. “It didn’t seem important.”
“He still wants you.” Another nod. “And you still want him?”
“I don’t know what I want, Pen.” She puts a hand on her heavy belly. “I want this baby, but I can’t have it. I want things with Hal to be the way they were, but -”
“You want the baby?” Penelope asks. “For real?”
“A pipe dream.” She places another hand on herself. “Now that I know there’s nothing waiting for him but a life of growing up here. Without enough love or care or warmth or food. What I want doesn’t really matter, does it?”
There is no celebration on New Years Eve. No mention of the day at all. Penelope thinks how funny she found it that first year. How the Blossoms threw a lavish party and she walked around in a crushed velvet dress with matching shoes, sipping sparkling cider out of champagne flutes with her brothers. How fun and silly it seemed because was it not just another day?
Penelope stands on a chair and takes their clock off the wall since neither of them have a watch. Alice nabs them a small bottle of orange juice to toast at midnight. They pour it into their bathroom cups and count the minutes with excitement.
There is nothing exciting about midnight. Nothing exciting about starting a year that will surely be horrible for them both. But they count down anyway, orange juice clutched in their hands.
Three. Two. One.
They clink their cups and Penelope leans in to do what you always do at midnight. The polite round the room of cheek kisses to ring in the new year. Alice leans in at the same time and their lips brush each other. Gentle at first, hardly a graze. The slightest gasp. But all the gasp does is open her mouth wider. Their lips press harder.
Penelope doesn’t remember putting their glasses down. She doesn’t remember cradling Alice’s face in her hands or Alice putting her tongue in her mouth. It all happens at once and it’s all so sweet and fast and nice that Penelope can’t dare question it. Can’t ask what it is.
For the first time in weeks they fall asleep without a single word between them. Just one last kiss to seal it.
“What if they never let me go home?” Penelope feels the panic stirring in her chest. “I’ve been here over three months and all it did was make it worse. I’m not cured.”
“Cured of what?” Alice asks. She unbuttons her dress and Penelope turns her eyes away.
“They sent me here to - to rid me of the way I was thinking.”
Alice pauses her undressing and places a hand on her hip. “Did they actually catch you with a girl?”
Penelope’s heart speeds up. “Of course not! The housekeeper just found some books I had hidden under my bed.”
“Alice, no! Just some - some suggestive literature.” She pulled the hair tie out of her braid and Alice started brushing her hair straight. “I’ve never been with - never even kissed a girl before.”
Alice’s fingers pause in her hair. “Really?”
She nods. Alice tilts Penelope’s face up towards hers. “Listen to me, Penelope. There is no cure because there’s nothing wrong with you, okay?” She cups Penelope’s face between both her hands. “There’s nothing wrong if you like girls.”
“But I don’t just -”
“There’s nothing wrong if you like boys and girls! Do you hear me?” She rubs a thumb under Penelope’s cheek where a tear was running free. “You don’t need anyone to fix you, okay?”
“Okay,” she chokes out. She puts her hands over Alice’s. “Do you like me?”
“Of course I like you, Pen.” She wipes another tear from her eye. “More than I ever thought I would.”
Penelope’s had sex before, but she never made love until that night.
“You do need to make them think you’re getting better,” Alice whispers. “Make them think their stupid therapy has helped you.”
Alice gives her a wry smile. “Because I don’t want to go back to Riverdale in two months when you’re still here.”
“I haven’t had an impure thought in weeks, Monsignor.” Penelope recites the lines she and Alice practised. “All that prayer must have paid off. And may I say, rooming with an unwed mother opened my eyes to a lot of things I never considered. I feel so deeply for poor, poor Alice. She is working ever so hard to atone for her sins. But at the same time it has opened me up to the joys of motherhood.”
“Oh?” he asks, his hands folded neatly in front of him.
“Oh yes! Watching Alice grow that little bundle in her belly has made me realize how badly I want that for myself one day. And I know you can’t make a baby with two women.”
“Well of course -”
“And since I’ll be getting married in a few months, I suppose I should be preparing for that now. I could be as far along as Alice by this time next year!”
The Monsignor raised his brow. “Did your parents arrange for you to be married, Penelope?”
She feigns shock. “Why, sir, I thought you knew. Didn’t they tell you when they adopted me? That they wanted to marry me off to my brother Clifford?”
They’re only allowed as far as the courtyard when it’s snowing, but they go out all the same. They stand several feet apart despite the cold.
“Will you be in the room with me when I give birth?” Alice asks.
Penelope wants to hug her, kiss her. She wants to be there for the birth and then grab Alice and the baby and run off with them. Go to Greendale or Centerville or hell, even New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Baltimore, Denver. She wants to go to the ends of the earth with her and the baby.
She nods. “Of course, Alice.”
Only Penelope never makes it to the birth.
On a Monday morning, there is a loud tapping on their door at 7 am sharp. A tall woman with streaks of red in her prematuring white hair walks in with two of the sisters.
“Collect your things, Penelope,” she says with a distasteful glance around the room. “You’re coming home.” She turns to one of the sisters. “This is what I’m paying for? This drab room she’s sharing with some pregnant street urchin?”
“Excuse you,” Alice hisses.
“Mother,” Penelope says delicately, hardly believing her eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I am here to collect you,” she says in a tone meant for a small child. “Now pack your bags and hurry. You’re to be back in class tomorrow.”
“Why? They told me I still had months -”
“Well you don’t.” Roseanne Blossom crosses her arms over her chest and examines her daughter. “I was told you had a breakthrough and are cured. I was also told you’ve been spouting off silly rumors about our family and thought it was best you’re back under our care.” She looks over her shoulder towards the door where the Monsignor is standing. “Isn’t that right?”
He nods solemnly. “It is.”
Alice jumps out of bed as best she can with her stomach and makes her way towards the door. “You’re just going to let her go? After what she told you?”
“Sit back down, Alice,” he says calmly as each of the Sisters takes one of her arms. “Getting worked up is bad for the baby.”
“You can’t let her go yet,” Alice insists, furiously trying to pull herself away. “You can’t.”
“Stop it, Alice,” Penelope says quietly as she packs her few belongings. “Don’t make things worse for either of us.”
Alice kicks and thrashes and eventually Sister Mary Anne comes in and forces something into her mouth to ‘calm her.’ Penelope keeps the tears at bay as she watches Alice’s body settle.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Sister Mary Anne assures her. “They’re all natural. Won’t hurt the baby.”
“Will you tell her I said goodbye?” she asks but Rose is already pulling her down the stone hallway. Back to Riverdale. To Thornhill. To the life she never escaped.
day 1 (again)
Things don’t work out with Hal.
They stay together when she gets back and go to Boston for college. They move into a little apartment and everything is all fun and games at first. Playing house and going to school and working. But it’s not enough. There’s this heaviness to their relationship. This thing Alice can’t bear to talk about with him. Because even though it was his baby, he feels like an intruder to her story. Feels like an intruder to her and Penelope’s story. Whenever he brings it up she finds herself in a fit of blind rage and it’s only a matter of time before they decide it’s just not working anymore.
They stay friends of course. They stay roommates as a matter of fact (and on more than one lonely night they find themselves bedmates again) but that spark that kept them going in high school has long since snuffed out. Alice thinks she might go back to Riverdale with him after graduation, but she knows nothing is waiting there for her. Most everyone there who once mattered to her is gone or moved on, but at least it’s a familiar place, even if not a happy one.
They don’t tell Hal’s parents about the break up so Alice sits through long conversations with Mrs. Cooper when Hal isn’t home. When he’s off at work or in class or on dates with a series of bimbos Alice knows aren’t good enough for him. She answers questions about school and listens to town gossip and tunes out as best she can but when a certain name crosses her ear one day, she nearly drops the phone.
“Who’s getting married?” Alice asks as her heart thumps in her chest.
Mrs. Cooper makes such a sad noise, Alice thinks she might be holding back tears. “They sent us the marriage announcement this morning. I - I thought it was a joke at first. What awful things go on in that family? There is no way - not her. That sweet little girl would never.” There’s a long pause as Mrs. Cooper blows her nose while covering the receiver. “I just know their parents are pushing them into it. What other explanation can there be? It doesn’t mean a thing if Penelope was adopted, she and Clifford are brother and sister!”
“When?” is all Alice can choke out.
She thinks to her first day back at school after getting out of the Sisters. She and Penelope glanced at each other in that hall and said nothing and it was as if those hundred days never happened at all. Alice thinks if she just said something to her, any little thing at all, things could have turned out different. Too late for that. Maybe in some parallel universe they’re raising Charles together in an apothecary shop.
It’s only 4 pm, but Alice cries herself to sleep. Cries as hard as the rain coming down outside. She only comes back to it when she finds Hal holding a washcloth to her forehead and asking her what’s wrong. It doesn’t come flooding back because it never left her in the first place. That dread. Knowing that Penelope is mere hours away from being married off to her own brother.
When she looks into Hal’s eyes, she feels the lump rise to her throat. The lump that stopped her from ever talking about her time at the Sisters with him. Stopped her from telling him about Charles and Penelope and their fantasy to run away and those awful Blossoms and what they did to her. What they still planned on doing to her. But for the first time in two years, she chokes it down. She forces the words out. Forces the whole long story to be spread out in front of him like a Thanksgiving dinner.
He stays passive, listening to every word. He gently pushes her down when she gets too worked up and brings her a glass of water and holds the wet cloth over her forehead. He offers her tissues, but she never wipes her eyes. The tears ruining the make up she wore to class feel like a small price to pay.
Hal holds her as she finishes her story and she doesn’t think she’s ever seen him look so sad. He strokes her hair and she curls up on his lap, already knowing if he doesn’t have plans tonight she’ll pull him into her bed if he’ll have her. Do it because he doesn’t deserve to deal with the pile of problems she’s always thrown at him. And do it because she needs comfort and sex is the only kind of intimacy she’ll let anyone give her anymore. Nothing else has held up in years.
A knock on the door is hardly audible through the thunder outside and Hal tries to hold her back down, insisting no one is there. But Alice jumps out of his embrace and approaches the door slowly. There is another knock behind it, just as gentle, and Alice knows it's her before she opens the door. Only one person would run away the night before her wedding, travel two hundred miles in the rain, and still knock as politely as possible.
Penelope looks like a wet mouse with her soaked hair and large raincoat and battered suitcase she drags behind her. She looks so lost and confused but when she meets Alice’s eyes she offers her a shrug and squeaks out, “It’s not Greendale, but maybe it will do.”